Morihiro Saito Sensei made an incalculable contribution to Aikido by synthesizing the chaos of what O-Sensei taught into a systematic curriculum. The orderly progression of students through this organized curriculum is the path of Iwama Style Aikido. Some may complain that the spontaneity and creativity is leeched out of the art by this organized style of practice, but Saito Sensei would tell students that, "in order to go fast you first must go slow," and learn the basic forms, footwork and hip movements, before aspiring to high levels of practice.
Saito Sensei spent a great deal of time organizing O-Sensei's sword forms into basic fundamentals, or suburi, and then he further built on these to create short kata-like forms or awase for partner practice. These flowing paired forms with the bokken, or wooden sword, crystalized into the Kumi Tachi that we still practice today, and they played a role in the development of the Ken Tai Jo, or Ken against Jo awase forms.
During the time that Dennis Tatoian Sensei studied at the Iwama dojo Saito Sensei taught the Kumi Tachi with many variations all ending in different ways. Following the principle of Riai, in which weapons forms and empty-handed Aikido were identical and fully informed by one another, Saito Sensei organized these variations into two categories: sword method and body method.
In the sword method endings, the Kumi Tachi and variations all ended with a killing sword thrust or strike. Conversely, with the body method endings, empty-handed Aikido techniques were used, much like the endings of the Tachi Dori, or sword taking techniques in which an unarmed defender defeats a sword attack.
Today Tatoian Sensei stood out on the mat at the beginning of Sunday class and said, "what do you guys want to do today?" Carmen and I looked at each other thinking, "anything you want to shows us would be perfect." But then I asked out loud, "would you show us the sword method/body method variations of the Kumi Tachi?" I knew that Tatoian Sensei felt an appreciation for Saito Sensei's systematic curriculum, and that Tatoian Sensei would shortly be returning to his new home in the Phillippines. It seemed like a great time to have him guide us through the Kumi Tachi variations.
While there are endings possible at each and every strike or thrust point within the Kumi Tachi, Saito Sensei had taken great care to teach both sword endings and empty-handed endings at the conclusion of the first and second attacker strikes. Tatoian Sensei began us with the first Kumi Tachi and showed us sword method and body method endings at each of these points. His approach was to have Carmen and I do one round of stop-start practice and then a round executing the form in a flowing awase manner. Once we had completed this he would come back on the mat and show us the variations.
Many of the sword method endings involved a simple entry, slicing into the attacker's center as the attacker rose to strike, while some involved stepping off on a safe angle and striking at the head. One of the more interesting sword endings was to mimic shiho nage with a slice across the attacker's mid section and then a 180 degree turn for a final strike.
The body method endings included Kote Gaishi, Koshi Nage, many Kokyu Nages, and a Hiji Waza ending in which you capture the striking right arm with both hands and, with a right hip turn, drive the attacker to the mat while his sword arm is brought straight up.
Over the course of an hour and a half Sensei systematically provided us with a tour of Kumi Tachi variations for all five forms: sword method and body method for first and second strike endings. I'd seen some of these in bits and pieces over the years, but never a coverage of all five forms with variations for first and second strike.
As I left the dojo I felt a surge of appreciation for Saito Sensei's contribution in making Aikido accessible to us mere mortals in a way that resembles a curriculum. The nice thing about a systematic curriculum is that things tend not to get lost or fall through the cracks over time. At the same time I felt a little of the same sadness that I felt in January when Tatoian Sensei went away to the Phillipines. At that time we knew he would be back for a while during the Summer. This time there is no clear expectation that he will be back at all, with the exception of short visits now and then. That means that the responsibility of keeping the curriculum fresh and interesting falls on those of us who are trying to keep the dojo together and move it into the future. Today's tour of the Kumi Tachi variations will contribute greatly to our ability to pull this off.